1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2006  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 20/01/2006   
   Page tools: Print Print Page


Mathematics and science have been identified as two of the eight key learning areas for Australian school students.(End note 1) Mathematics and science skills are part of a broader skill set that can assist young people in further education, participation in home and life activities, and in obtaining employment. Higher achievers in literacy and numeracy in Year 9 are more likely to stay at school until Year 12, have a higher tertiary entrance performance, be employed and earning more when they leave school.(End note 2)

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Australian students have high levels of mathematics and science literacy. In 2003, their average scores placed them among the top third of 41 countries.

This article discusses mathematics and science literacy of 15 year-old students (approximate grade is Year 10) using data from the PISA 2003 survey. The Australian Council for Educational Research conducted the survey for PISA using 12,600 15 year-old students from 321 government and non-government schools.

PISA was developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The first survey took place in 2000 and the second in 2003 with 41 countries taking part. It assesses the abilities of 15 year olds to apply knowledge and skills to real-life problems and situations.(End note 3)

PISA measures literacy in three domains - reading, science literacy and mathematics literacy. A scaling method assigns scores so that 500 is the OECD average in each domain. Students are also assessed in terms of proficiency levels for mathematics literacy.


Mathematics literacy (also termed numeracy) is an individual's capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgements and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual's life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen.(End note 4)

Science literacy is an individual's capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity.(End note 4)

Proficiency levels for mathematics literacy represent assessed performance on groups of tasks of ascending difficulty, with level 6 as the highest level of proficiency and 'below level 1' the lowest. Levels 1 and below represent items with relatively low difficulty while levels 4 and above reflect items with moderate through to high difficulty.



(a) Of 15 year-old school students as assessed by PISA. Mathematics literacy in 2000 tested two areas while 2003 tested four areas. Ranked by 2003 average scores.
(b) Did not participate in PISA 2000.
(c) Percentiles are based on average scores for all countries.

Source: Thomson, S et al. 2004.


In most countries, 15 year olds are nearing the end of compulsory secondary schooling.(End note 4) The mathematics and science literacy of 15 year olds is an indicator of how well equipped they are for future education, work and life.

In 2003, PISA results showed Australian 15 year olds performed well when compared with 41 OECD and other countries across both mathematics and science scores. Australia's average (mean) scores of 524 in mathematics literacy and 525 in science literacy placed it above the OECD average of 500 for each skill area and in the top third of countries (graph 10.34).

Four countries performed significantly better than Australia in mathematics literacy - Finland, Hong Kong, Republic of (South) Korea and the Netherlands - while nine countries, including Canada and New Zealand had similar scores. Three countries scored significantly higher average proficiency levels in science literacy than Australia, while eight countries (also including New Zealand and Canada) had similar results. Australia performed significantly better than the remaining countries.

Most countries had some variation between their performance in 2000 and 2003. Australian students' average performance was similar in 2000 and 2003, but more countries outperformed Australia in 2003.

Over four in ten Australian students (43%) were capable of tackling items in mathematics with moderate difficulty through to items with relatively high difficulty (proficiency level 4 through to level 6). Only 14% were unable to do items with relatively low difficulty (level 1 or below).(End note 4)

While Australian students attained a good overall result in 2003, achievement varied across students with different characteristics. Mathematics and science literacy is associated with a variety of social and demographic factors such as sex, socioeconomic status, family background, teacher characteristics and school setting.

Research shows that overall, while many boys in Australian schools are doing well, boys are not achieving as well as girls across a range of educational and social measures. Boys are more likely to drop out of school early and less likely to go on to university than girls.(End note 5) However, recent research on school subject selection and subsequent study and work participation in Australia has found that males are still much more likely than females to be taking advanced mathematics and science at senior secondary school, and much more likely to move into mathematics and science-related courses in higher education.(End note 4)

In 2003, there were no significant sex differences in scores for Australian 15 year olds, with boys' mathematics literacy (average score of 527) similar to that of girls' (522) (graph 10.35). Australian male and female students had the same average score of 525 for science literacy. Overall, more boys (45%) than girls (42%) achieved the higher levels of proficiency in mathematics (levels 4, 5 and 6) (graph 10.36).(End note 4)

Graph 10.35: MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE LITERACY AVERAGE SCORES(a), Australian students - 2003

Graph 10.36: MATHEMATICS PROFICIENCY LEVELS(a), Australian students - 2003

There are differences in school starting ages between Australian states and territories, which makes it difficult to compare aspects of education. The bulk of students tested were in Year 10 for all the states with the exception of Western Australia where more than half were in Year 11.
(End note 4)

In all states and territories, Australian 15 year-old students performed on average at least as well as the average performance of students across all OECD countries in the study (graph 10.37). Students in the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia scored the highest within Australia, on average, in mathematics and science literacy. Over half of their students performed at or above the top three proficiency levels in mathematics literacy.(End note 4) The average scores of the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia were similar to the highest performing countries for mathematics and science.(End note 4)

10.37 LITERACY AVERAGE SCORES(a), By state and territory


New South Wales
South Australia
Western Australia
Northern Territory
Australian Capital Territory

(a) Of 15 year-old school students in Australia as assessed by PISA.
(b) OECD average score is 500.

Source: Thomson, S et al. 2004.

Students attending schools in rural and remote areas experience educational disadvantage in a variety of ways. In remote areas, some of the major issues are recruiting and retaining teachers, barriers to accessing educational services and issues surrounding the access to, costs and use of information and communications technology.
(End note 6)

In 2003, metropolitan students had higher average scores in both mathematics and science literacy (528 and 529) compared with provincial or rural (515 and 516) and remote areas (493 and 489).(End note 4)

The 2003 PISA results for Indigenous students were consistently lower than for non-Indigenous students. Indigenous students had an average mathematics literacy score of 440 and science score of 434, compared with non-Indigenous students scores of 526 and 527 respectively.(End note 4) The National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy was launched in 2000 with the objective to achieve literacy and numeracy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at levels comparable to those achieved by other young Australians.(End note 7)

For mathematics literacy, there was an over-representation of Indigenous students at the lowest proficiency levels (level 1 and below) with 43% of Indigenous students compared with 14% of all students in Australia, and the OECD average of 21%. However, 13% of Indigenous students were performing at the higher levels (levels 4, 5 and 6).(End note 4)


The home environment has an influence on the reading literacy and numeracy outcomes for students. (See 'Literacy and numeracy among school students',
Australian Social Trends 2002 (4102.0)). Further analysis of the PISA results for 15 year-old students in Australia has shown a moderately positive relationship between the mathematical literacy performance of 15 year-old students and home environment factors such as parental education, the number of books in the home, computer resources, access to educational software and cultural possessions in the home, such as books of poetry and works of art.(End note 4)

The OECD developed a socioeconomic index based on the types of factors discussed above. In 2003, Australian students in the lowest quartile of the socioeconomic index (signifying the highest degree of disadvantage) scored about 79 points less in mathematics literacy than students in the highest quartile (signifying the lowest degree of disadvantage). Overall, socioeconomic status had less of an impact on mathematics performance in Australia than across other OECD countries on average.(End note 4)

In 2003, Australian students who spoke English at home had higher average scores for both mathematics and science literacy (scores of 529 in each domain) than those who spoke a language other than English at home (505 and 509 respectively).(End note 4)


1. Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs 1999, The National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-first Century, <http://www.mceetya.edu.au/mceetya/>, accessed 16 May 2005.<Back

2. Penman, R 2004, An easy reference guide to Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth research reports, 1996-2003, Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell.<Back

3. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2004, Learning for Tomorrow's World; First Results from PISA 2003, OECD, Paris.<Back

4. Thomson, S. et al 2004, Facing the Future: A focus on mathematical literacy among Australian 15 year old students in PISA 2003, Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell.<Back

5. Department of Education, Science and Training, Boys' education
boys_education/default.htm> accessed May 27 2005.<Back

6. Department of Education, Science and Training 2003, National Evaluation of the Country Areas Program, 2002-03 <http://www.dest.gov.au/sectors/school_education/publication_resources/profiles/
national_evaluation_of_the_country_areas_program_2002_03.htm> accessed 14 June 2005.<Back

7. Department of Education, Science and Training 2003, Final Report on the National Evaluation of National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy(NIELS), <http://www.dest.gov.au/sectors/indigenous_education/publications_resources/
profiles/final_report_nielns.htm> accessed June 14 2005.<Back